More on the butterfly effect

This figure is another “butterfly” featured in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry. His name is Sir Thomas Blount, a supporter of Richard II. He served as a napier at Richard’s coronation banquet in 1377.

Thomas was a participant in the Epiphany Rising to restore Richard after the king was dethroned by Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. But the rebellion was unsuccessful and Thomas was captured and put to death at a place known as the Green Ditch on the outskirts of Oxford. His execution was brutal and recorded later by a chronicler as follows:

Sir Thomas Blount was hanged; but the halter was soon cut, and he was made to sit on a bench before a great fire, and the executioner came with a razor in his hand, and knelt before Sir Thomas, whose hands were tied, begging him to pardon him his death, as he must do his office. Sir Thomas asked, “Are you the person appointed to deliver me from this world?” The executioner answered, “Yes, Sir, I pray you pardon me.” And Sir Thomas kissed him, and pardoned him his death. The executioner then knelt down, and opened his belly, and cut out his bowels, and threw them into the fire. While Sir Thomas was dying, one Erpyngham, the king’s chamberlain, insulting Blount, said to him, in derision, “Go, seek a master that can cure you.” Blount only answered, “Te Deum laudamus! Blessed be the day on which I was born, and blessed be this day, for I shall die in the service of my sovereign lord, the noble King Richard”. His head was soon after cut off and he was quartered.

Elements of the execution are indicated in Blount’s portrayal. The location is referenced by the figure in green standing immediately behind Blount. The green colour represents the Green Ditch. One of the figure’s identities is the painter Jan van Eyck. Ditch can be translated as dyke, a pun on the name d’Eyck or Van Eyck. Blount’s hanging is matched to the string of beads around his neck and his beheading to the black collar. Quartering of the body is when limbs are severed from the torso, hence the surcoat’s serrated design. Other references to quartering are the folded napkin and the four pieces of bread on the table. As for Blount’s disembowelment, this is indicated by what appears to be a belt but actually represents where Blount’s belly was opened. Notice also the demonic feature, formed by part of the serated edge, appearing to look into the opened wound. The markings on the front of the red section of the surcoat are best understood if the image is turned upside down. Now the jagged edges can be recognised as representing rising flames and the markings as the eyes seen of a peacock’s feathers. The peacock is symbolic of eternal life. The flames are also associated with the mythical phoenix but this relates to another narrative associated with the Van Eyck figure.

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

The account of Blount’s execution where its states he was made to sit on a bench before a great fire, is mirrored in the group of men seemingly warming their hands “before a great fire” as they are commanded to approach by the marshall. In this scenario “the great fire” can be understood as the fire of Hell. The artist has also made sure that the prelate, in the guise of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, is portrayed seated on a bench with his hands raised. This, too, relates to another narrative that connects with the Epiphany Rising and recorded in the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers.

So how is Sir Thomas Blount portrayed as a butterfly by the artist Bathélemy d’Eyck? His wings are meant to represent a butterfly, wings that were torn from its body when he was tortured and executed after his capture.

Detail from the November folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry attributed to Jean Colombe

Jean Colombe picks up on this in his painting of the November folio in the Très Riche Heures. The two men in the wooded represent Jan and Hubert van Eyck (Hubert is a second identity applied to the Blount figure). They are clothed in white tops and wear black caps and stand apart, separated. This is a reference to Blount’s white and black wing features in the January folio. The figure of Barthélemy d’Eyck looking up is depicted in the process of shedding his outer coat to morph into a butterfly as the Van Eyck brothers. Notice his black cap and white undergarment, its hem shaped as a wing. In reality the artist is expressing Barthélemy’s conversion after witnessing a vision of the Lamb of God depicted among the oak trees. This is also a reference to another Van Eyck painting, The Stigmata of St Francis who is portrayed levitating when he is presented with a vision of the Crucified Christ portrayed as a six-winged seraph.

Detail from the November folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

From little acorns…

Following on from my previous post here are more details about Barthélemy d’Eyck’s connection to the Très Riche Heures, as revealed in the November calendar folio painted by Jean Colombe

The November folio from the calendar section of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

The scene depicts an acorn harvest. The main figure is about to hurl his stick at the branches of the oak trees to bring down acorns for his swine herd to feed on. His dog sits and stares at the swine feasting. Two other men watch over some of the herd that has strayed into the edge of the woods. A castle is nestled at the foot of the hill. Built into the side of the hill is seemingly a collection of caves. Distant hills rise above a lake fronted by pasture land and more wooded areas.

The acorns are not difficult to spot in the foreground. The golden glow of the man’s tunic also catches the eye. Its radiance adds charisma to the figure, as does his bold stance. He is the most prominent feature in the scene, towering above the boars. There’s no doubt Jean Colombe is presenting the man as the main attraction in the frame. But for what reason?

Was he known to Colombe in some way – another artist, perhaps, and not a simple peasant working with pigs as portrayed? Could he portray Colombe’s version of the Prodigal Son who would have been happy to eat the food of pigs in his hungry state, except this particular son appears to be more that well-nourished with his rotund abdomen shaped like a pig’s back.

The iconography provides more than enough evidence about the man appearing to tilt at windmills. He is Barthélemy d’Eyck. 

The calendar months of October and December from the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

The November folio is inserted between the calendar months of October and December, both painted by Barthélemy. The October scene shows two men tilling the soil and sowing seed for a new crop. 

In Colombe’s November painting we see the man ‘raked’ in light, a ‘crop’ or whip in his hand, formed by the stick coupled with some dead branches. The acorns are not always snaffled by the pigs. From little acorns grow great oaks as evidenced by the forest of trees, but especially the sign of new life appearing beneath the man’s right arm.

The December folio shows one of the fattened swine speared by a hunter and savaged by a pack of dogs, most likely to serve as food for feasting at Christmas and New Year. This completes the calendar cycle to start again with the month of January and provide the link back to Barthélemy d’Eyck.

So what could be the reason why Barthélemy stepped out of sequence and not produce the November folio? Whatever the cause, Jean Colombe has cleverly made a point of painting the insert to refer back to a piece of iconography in the January folio. In fact, most of the disguised iconography in the November miniature is a translation of hidden devices used by Barthélemy to create several themes within the January banquet scene. Just as the pigs search for acorns on the ground to feed on, so Colombe invites the viewer to his version of the banquet to unearth and savour the the buried delights and treasure he has translated from the January folio. . 

As to the two figures in the background, they represent Hugo and Jan van Eyck. This will be explained in another post along with details of a feast of other iconography in the November folio.

Finally, there is a portrait painting housed at the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig, that bears more than a passing resemblance to the version of Barthélemy d’Eyck in the November miniature. It’s attributed to Jan van Eyck, or a follower. Could it be Barthélemy? 

Left: Portrait of a Man Praying, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig.
Right: detail from the November folio, Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

Revisiting the Très Riche Heures

During the past two years I have posted several times about the January folio from the Très Riche Heures calendar section. More recently I have uncovered some interesting features about the painting which, as far as I know, have not come to light in any other commentaries concerning the miniature.

Detail from January folio in the Calendar section of the Très Riche Heures de Duc de Berry

The Très Riche Heures (Very Rich Hours) was commissioned by John, Duke of Berry and assigned to the Limbourg brothers to produce illustrations for the calendar section and collection of prayers. However, both the sponsor and the brothers died in 1416 before the work was completed. The book was inherited by René of Anjou and further pages were completed in the 1440s, attributed to Barthélemy d’Eyck, a relative of the brothers Hubert, Jan and Lambert van Eyck. The Duke of Savoy acquired the book in the 1480s and more pages were finished by the painter Jean Colombe.

Some historians attribute the March, September (part of), October and December calendar pages to Barthélemy d’Eyck and refer to him as the “Master of the Shadows”. However, there is evidence to postulate that the January folio was also painted by Barthélemy.

In previous posts made about the January folio, I referred to Pol Limbourg as being the painter. He does feature in the scene, as does Barthélemy, who I now believe painted the banquet scene celebrating the feast of the Epiphany which occurs on January 6.

Sat at the table is a priest wearing a white alb which symbolizes purity of the soul, so the banquet can also be considered as a celebration of the Catholic Mass, the Eucharist, which is a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection. The host of the occasion is the Duke of Berry, clothed in royal blue and sat before the host-shaped fireguard. Christ’s death is denoted by the duke’s hat, a crown of thorns. The table represents an altar and the cloth is depicted as the shroud that covered Jesus in his tomb.

Parts of the picture are based on the Three Marys at the Tomb painting attributed to Jan van Eyck or his brother Hubert, which indicates that the folio was completed after the attribution date of 1425-1435 given to the Three Marys by the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam and where the painting is housed. If this is the case then it rules out Pol Limbourg or one of his brothers as having produced the January folio.

Most of the guests at the banquet are assigned with double identities. For instance, the kneeling figure in the bottom right corner of the frame is portrayed as both Richard II and St Bartholomew, the latter as a pointer to the artist, Barthélemy d’Eyck. The iconography relating to Richard ll was published in a previous post.

St Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. He is also identified as Nathaniel, the disciple brought to Jesus by Philip (John 1 : 43-51). Tradition holds that he was martyred by being skinned alive for proclaiming the Gospel. His skin was cut into strips and then peeled back to expose his inner flesh. The body was then allowed to bleed for some time before Bartholomew was eventually beheaded. Most representations of the saint show him holding his peeled skin along with a flensing knife.

The illustration alongside shows the hem of the Duke of Berry’s gown peeled back to reveal the patterned strips of the dias beneath. The figure’s gown also hangs in a manner to suggest a piece of loose flesh. In his hand is a knife, seemingly carving strips from a piece of meat (notice the very faint suggestion of strips). The loop of his chaperon is shaped as a sickle, indicating the saint’s decapitation.

The knife also represents a bull’s horn. This connects to the black hood of the chaperon that hangs down and doubles up as the face of a cow and also a shield which both connect to Edward the Black Prince, father of Richard ll. The bovine reference echoes a similar attribute depicted in the Three Mary’s at the Tomb, as do the four men standing left of Richard ll who doubles up as Barthélemy d’Eyck. The group of four men also have two identities.

Interestingly, Barthélemy has painted both the January and December folios, the beginning and the end of the year, when one looks back on the past and forward to the future. The month of January is named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, transitions and duality. He is usually depicted as having two heads. The bear-like figure of the Duke of Berry is the head looking back on the past, while the bear perched on the boat-shaped ‘nef’ is shown facing the opposite direction, looking forward into the future and the new year.

The painting is designed to entertain and amuse, an occasion to ‘spot the historic celebrities’ among the crowded scene, even though all of the ‘faces’ are practically identical, making it somewhat a puzzler for art historians and researchers, especially as the painting is also embedded with word play features and riddles.

For instance: why are two cats allowed to eat on the banquet table, and why are some of the guests seemingly warming their hands at the fireplace?

More about the January folio in my next post.